Organizational relationships are almost exclusively analyzed using the data that captures the perceptions of the parties in the relationships. While useful for describing the state of a focal organizational relationship at a single point in time, or over a short period, this approach has limited utility for research involving multiple relationships over an extended timeframe. The perspective that organization-public relationships can be described and studied as objective phenomena, separate from the subjective experiences of individual participants with properties other than the perceptions of those involved, underpins the framework for tracking organization-public relationships proposed in this paper.
Acknowledging the unique and potentially powerful positions held by activist publics in relation to the organizations with which they share issues of mutual concern, I argue that organizations and activists signal the state of their relationships using observable relationship processes, that is, information flows, specifically public statements about their shared issues of concern as reported by the news media. It is from these published relationship-signaling statements that the state of the focal relationships is interpreted using a conflict continuum. I report the findings of three case studies which incorporate the analysis of relationship-signaling statements made by Australia’s major banks and their activist publics and published by the media from 1981 to 2001. The relationship data were extracted from the content analysis of more than 6, 500 newspaper articles.